Drugs peer faces blow to inheritance: Blenheim trustees move to tie up estate

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THE MARQUESS of Blandford faces being stripped of part of his pounds 100m inheritance as trustees yesterday began court proceedings to remove the management of the Blenheim estate from the 'reformed' drug addict on his succession to the dukedom.

After three days of applications at Manchester High Court, Mr Justice Morritt gave the go-ahead for a High Court hearing in London which could deny the marquess his right to manage Blenheim Palace or sell any of the estate's 11,500 acres or family heirlooms.

There has long been talk of the 11th Duke of Marlborough wanting to disinherit his eldest son, James, in favour of Edward Spencer-Churchill, the marquess's younger half- brother. But it would require an Act of Parliament, since the palace, land and title were a gift from the nation to the first Duke of Marlborough after the defeat of the French at Blenheim in 1704. According to Debrett, such an Act would never get through the House of Lords.

Now the court is being asked to allow the duke to place the business of the estate in a trust which the marquess could not touch.

The heir's progress through the last decade was marked by 12 motoring offences, two prison sentences, one attempted burglary, one assault on a police officer, mounting debts and a drug habit costing pounds 500 a week. His 18-month marriage ended in 1992 with his wife, Becky, saying that she could no longer tolerate his 'increasingly erratic' behaviour. Last summer he was arrested after five days on the run, and imprisoned for failing to pay pounds 10,534 maintenance. While on the run, he boasted to the press that he was the 'new Lord Lucan'. In February, he was arrested outside a London nightclub for alleged cheque-book theft and unpaid taxi bills.

Rupert Hambro, a trustee of the estate, said in an affidavit that he, the duke and the other trustees were 'very concerned' at the prospect of the marquess inheriting the estate. 'In view of Lord Blandford's unbusinesslike habits and the lack of responsibility shown by him, we have been driven very reluctantly to the conclusion that he is not at present capable of taking on the burden of managing the Parliamentary Estates.'

But the marquess argued in another affidavit that the application was 'unnecessary'. 'My father will, I hope, live for many years to come and I believe that long before his death, I will with psychiatric help have overcome my psychological problems,' he said.

'A long-standing, but until recently undiagnosed, depression was at the root of my behaviour with drugs and this is now being successfully treated. The management of the estate is a responsibility to which I aspire and which I would treat with the utmost seriousness.'